The Islandman by Tomás O’Crohan
While I was wildly excited for The Last September for my Irish Literature class, I barely even noticed The Islandman until it came time to sit down and read the thing. I’ll be totally honest; I kept confusing it with other books, since the various Oxford Paperbacks of Irish Literature all look more or less the same. They’ve all got turquoise maps, a single photo, and green and red accents. (The image above is one of the only ones I could find in a large enough size.) As time wound down to the due date of the book, I holed myself up on the third floor of my school library (which is the floor with the mysterious tiny doors!) and polished it off without napping. Well, without a lot of napping.
The Islandman was originally written in Irish in 1923, but was later translated into the English translation that currently rests on my desk (or bookshelf, time is nebulous with the kind of scheduling buffers I cling to like white on rice). Tomás Ó Criomhthain—whose name is Anglicized as Thomas O’Crohan or Tomás O’Crohan in my edition—writes of his life on the Great Blasket Island, from the 1850s of his birth to the 1920s of the publication of the book. The Islandman is a personal portrait of a society that is now lost to us.
I’ll be frank—I found it boring. Ó Criomhthain’s writing is straight-forward and not very adorned; the turns of phrases that I did like mostly came from the quirks of translating Irish into English. There’s little structure beyond the vague one of Ó Criomhthain’s life; he goes back and forth a lot. He’s led a very hard life, but it’s also a very repetitive life, of fishing, harvesting turf, scavenging from shipwrecks, death, and holidays. I was bewildered to discover that Ó Criomhthain’s wife and many of his children died when he mentions it—he barely talks about his wife and talks about his children in a roundabout way. It’s not that he didn’t care for them; he talks about how incredibly devastated he was after his wife’s death, with two little girls to raise (both of whom, if I remember correctly, died). But he doesn’t talk about them. I’m used to more emotional narrators in fiction and in nonfiction, so, while it’s interesting to see this, it’s not exactly a joy to read.
And I think that sums up the entire book. From an anthropological perspective, it’s absolutely fascinating. Ó Criomhthain lays out everything from how they built their houses to the day’s work. He relates stories from around the island, from eggs dropping from the roof into cups to the death of a man at sea, and, of course, his own life, the brightest spot of which is being annoyed into procrastination by the local poet. We learn how they fish and what they fish; what it’s like to live in the remotest West during some of the political upheaval around the turn of the twentieth century; and just how far-flung families were. Not only in the sense that, at one point, Ó Criomhthain is coming home only to find the funeral procession of a close relative, which he promptly joins, but also in the sense that the family emigrated to America and England. America was by no means the land of promise for the Islanders; when the fishing was good, they could get better money here than in the States. But’s an interesting portrait of a dying civilization. The Great Blasket Island is now in the process of being made a national park—it was evacuated in in 1953. While Ó Criomhthain can’t, of course, know that writing in 1923, he understands that his way of life is dying out. That’s part of his reason for writing the book, as he tells us in the last paragraph of the memoir. (Incidentally, one of his surviving children, Seán, wrote a book about the final abandonment of the Great Blasket Island.)
Ó Criomhthain wrote this and a previous volume in Irish; towards the end of the book, he talks about his transformation from fisherman to a teacher of Irish. The original Irish text is actually available in the public domain, having been published in 1923, if you are so inclined. Ultimately, however, this is an interesting anthropological piece rather than an interesting memoir. Alas.
Bottom line: Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s The Islandman (usually attributed to Tomás O’Crohan) is a interesting anthropological piece but a fairly boring memoir. A miss.
I bought this used book from Amazon.